3 Edits for Backstory & World-Building

Whether you’re writing fiction or fantasy, the most difficult pitfall to avoid can be properly fitting in backstory. It’s twice as difficult in fantasy because you have to fit in world-lore as well.

I won’t go into things to avoid, because it’s likely you’ve already made these mistakes. That’s why I’m going to say what you’ve already done wrong and how to edit it.

1. Info-Dump in the Dialogue – As you know, or, remember when?

Let’s say you’re a little more seasoned in writing, you’ve read some books, partnered up with some critique buddies, maybe even attended some writing workshops. You’ve already learned that info-dump shouldn’t be present in your story. It’s a mid-level writer who will realize they can creatively fit in some backstory or world-lore through dialogue and get away with it (or so they believe). Dialogue is always more interesting than narration, and it’s a good move. However there’s a pitfall with this, you have to be careful that whatever the characters are discussing makes logical sense.

The easiest way to spot this mistake is by doing a word search for “know” and “remember”. Here’s a dialogue example of what shouldn’t happen:

“Hey John, as you know, we have a quiz today. Remember yesterday, when we played games instead of studying?” Mike asks.

John nods his head in agreement. “That’s right, Mike. And as you know, we’ll have to skip class and try to catch the make-up quiz next week.” 

This is a bit of an exaggerated example, but run a search and you’ll probably find a small handful of these no-nos in your manuscript. Characters would never say things both parties already know to one another, and they wouldn’t recall an event both characters had participated in. The only time “remember” should be used is if one character is revealing something the other character wouldn’t know, and even then, be careful it sounds natural.

2. Info-Dump in Narration – Rambling for the sake of providing information

Narration is fine, but it should be the character speaking to the reader. It can’t be a professor reading from a textbook with a monotone speech.

Professor Narration (Don’t do it!):

There are two men sitting across from each other in the park. One is thinking heavily, about to make a move on the chess board. The board itself is riddled with minuscule cracks and stained with ingrained dirt. But both men hover over it like it’s the greatest treasure in the world.

While in itself, this narration can be interesting, it reads as if anyone could be describing the scene to the reader. Here’s the kind of edit I’d recommend:

Character Narration (Much better!):

I missed my grandfather, so I went to the one place I could always find him. He loved the park, and because of that, I loved it too. But when I spotted his stone chessboard, I saw two strangers were already playing a game. At first, I wished they weren’t there. But as their game progressed, I saw how both revered the small pedestal. While the board itself was riddled with minuscule cracks and stained with ingrained dirt, I admired how they both hovered over it as if it was the greatest treasure in the world. My grandfather would have been glad others enjoyed his donation to the park, just as he always did. I smiled.

Usually “less is more” when considering word count, but in this case if you have textbook info-dump, you’ll have to use more words to rewrite it from the character’s point of view. If you’re looking to beef up your word-count it’s a helpful edit, since most edits are about gutting the fat.

3. Transferring Info-Dump from Narration to Dialogue – Info Is Not Relevant to the Scene

Like I mentioned, some of your edits may have been converting info-dump from the narration into active dialogue. Even if the information being provided is information the other character doesn’t know, it’ll still stick out like a sore thumb if it provides unnecessary details. If the other character doesn’t need to know about it, why does the reader?

So let’s have a short example of info-dump that was previously in narration:

Ron was married until three years ago. He was married for five years and then divorced after he was caught cheating. His new girlfriend doesn’t know about it, and he hopes she’ll never figure out his secret. Even though he feels he’s changed, he knows his new girlfriend won’t believe him.

Converted to Dialogue:

(Ron and his best-friend Henry are talking)

“Henry, even though I was married three years ago, I wasn’t the same guy then as I am now. I was married for five years. I’m not the cheating kind of guy, but it just got boring.”

Henry sighed. “I’ve only known you for two years, and I’d agree you don’t seem like the cheating type. You’ve been dating your new girlfriend for two weeks, right? That’s not very long.”

While an exaggerated example, you can probably see that this kind of dialogue just doesn’t come off as a natural conversation. Would Henry and John really go into this kind of detail, especially of things both parties already know?

So how to fix it? You need to cut backstory that the reader doesn’t really need to hear about. While it’s important that you, the author, know all the facts, it’s not important for the reader to have a backstory-dictionary for your novel.

Fix:

“Damnit Henry, my new girlfriend was snooping through my phone! Now she’s probably going to break up with me.”

Henry’s eyes bulged. “That’s not cool. What’d she find?”

“She found an email I’ve kept since the divorce. It was from the woman I cheated with.”

“Oh man, that doesn’t sound good.”

The fix doesn’t exactly say how long ago he was divorced, how long he was married, how long he’s been dating his new girlfriend or how long he’s been friends with Ron. But honestly, does the reader need to know all that? No, they don’t.

As for the information that Ron has turned over a new leaf, that’s part of the “show versus tell” argument. You need to show Ron has evolved in the upcoming plot, don’t just tell the reader he’s changed.

And with your fix, you’ve created something for the reader to engage with. Now, the reader is anxious what was in that mysterious email. And will his girlfriend break up with him? Why’d Ron keep the email anyway? This is good, you want your reader to be asking questions, which is defined as “Narrative Thrust” in literary agent Paula Munier’s book, Writing With Quiet Hands. Be sure to keep this in mind that as the plot develops, some of these questions should naturally get answered along the way. The reader wants this world to be a giant mystery they have to piece together. But it shouldn’t be a giant mystery that just gets more mysterious.

There’s a fine line between making it exciting and divulging little bits at a time, and creating too many questions which therefore frustrates and overwhelms the reader. If you find your critique partners are asking too many questions, don’t try to answer everything. That in turn, will just create more info-dump. Instead, go back and edit out anything that would have made them ask questions that aren’t really vital to the plot. You need to be in control of the level of backstory the reader learns on their own and how much they actually want to know. Every sentence should be written with the goal of developing the story. Either it needs to make the reader ask an important question, or it needs to answer one. A master writer has controlled every chapter, paragraph, sentence, and word to have a specific purpose and place in the novel. Here are three of my favorites that do a great job at this:

Dune ($6.97), an old classic that does a masterful job of trickling in questions and filling in the blanks for a massive universe full of political struggles, as well as complex characters.

Lord of the Rings ($21.76), would be remiss not to include. Personally, I find some of the narration tedious for Lord of the Rings but for such a complex world it does a great job. Most fans can recite the complicated prophecy and massive cities, races, and political alliances of this world. Some people even learned the made-up Elvish language. Isn’t that amazing?

Fool’s Assassin ($8.99), a more modern favorite I like to reference from Robin Hobb’s Fitz and the Fool Series. What’s interesting is I didn’t start with the first novel in the multi-series, and it’s the novel I’m recommending here. I was not lost in an otherwise complicated magic system and high fantasy setting. I even went back and read the previous trilogy, and still found this one to be my favorite starting point. The previous novels felt more like bonus history. Robin does a great job of introducing elements one-by-one in bite sized bits that are easy to digest. Masterful job.

Bottom line, when trying to include backstory or world-lore, don’t get obsessive about it. Keep the mindset on the characters, their desires, struggles, and dilemmas. Pretend each element in your story is a golden goblet or jewel necklace in Aladdin’s Cave of Wonders. There are mountains of items to explore, but you led the reader into the Cave completely darkened. Don’t overflow the cavern with lava. Light a torch, and guide them through the smallest path, revealing each treasure one at a time until you reach the Genie’s Lamp.

This post is inspired by my studies in writing, particularly The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile ($10.69) written by a literary agent. Great advice from someone who knows.

Happy Editing!


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